Halloween Horror Nights 2023: The Best Haunted HousesAll photos courtesy of Universal Travel Features Halloween Horror Nights
It’s that time of the year again: Halloween Horror Nights has returned to Universal Studios Florida with another collection of grisly, frightening, beautifully detailed haunted houses. This year’s lineup includes houses based on massive TV shows, upcoming horror movies, classic films from almost a century ago, and one of the most popular videogames ever made. And once again, in addition to the houses built on licensed properties, Universal Creative has whipped up its own original houses, including one that reveals the origins of two of Halloween Horror Nights’ signature original characters. Universal continues to outdo itself with Halloween Horror Nights, and although none of this year’s houses can match the lyrical beauty of last year’s tremendous Dead Man’s Pier: Winter’s Wake, all-in-all this year features a stronger overall lineup, with the least impressive house still being really good. I don’t know if they’ve finally recovered from the issues brought on by the pandemic, but Universal doesn’t strike out once with this year’s Halloween Horror Nights.
If you’re headed down to Orlando and want to know what houses to prioritize, let our list below help you make up your mind. Given how long the lines get, you probably can’t fit in all 10 houses unless you go three times. Fortunately there are many opportunities to go; Halloween Horror Nights runs every night of the week except Mondays and Tuesdays through Oct. 31. It ends on Halloween itself, which is a Tuesday this year. And yes, there’s more to the event than Haunted Houses; it once again offers up five open air scare zones, a live show, and special food, drink, and merchandise.
Still, the haunted houses are the main draw. Here’s how this year’s houses stack up.
10. The Last of Us
Universal has been very careful to note that this house is based on the game, and not the HBO show, but given that Clickers and other infected creatures generally look and sound the same in both, it’s not that huge of a difference. Really, other than Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson providing the voices of Joel and Ellie instead of Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, there’s not much that will remind you that it isn’t based on the show. The theming and design bring the game to life, and those damned infected are suitably frightening, but overall this is a fairly straight-forward and not particularly memorable house. Maybe it’s because I’ve played both of the games and thus already walked through this world (albeit in virtual form), but The Last of Us house just doesn’t make as much of an impact as the rest of this year’s lineup. There are a number of Easter eggs for game fans, though, so keep an eye out, if you’re not too busy covering them up.
9. Dr. Oddfellow’s Twisted Origins
Universal has been carefully building up a tangle of Halloween Horror Nights lore over the decades, with relationships and connections between its various original “icons.” This year sees the return of Dr. Oddfellow as the night’s primary icon, and his origin is the backdrop for all five scare zones and the Dr. Oddfellow’s Twisted Origins house. The concept starts strong—the immortal soul collector Dr. Oddfellow runs a traveling circus through the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, with his menagerie of demented clowns and carnies wreaking havoc upon the populace. Again, the physical design of the house is tremendous, as is the makeup and costuming. The “killer clown” concept is so played out, though, that it feels a little too obvious and redundant here—even if one of those clowns is Jack the Clown, Halloween Horror Nights’ most popular original creation, whose origin is linked to Dr. Oddfellow’s. Dr. Oddfellow is a strong central character and there are some legitimate scares in Twisted Origins, making this a perfectly fine haunted house. There just happens to be eight better this year.
8. The Exorcist: Believer
The Exorcist: Believer is the most grotesque and traditionally frightening of this year’s houses, or at least it is for me, a guy whose horror soft spot has always been Devil Stuff. Expect amazing makeup and effects in this house, which is based on an upcoming Exorcist sequel. That hinders the house a bit—it’s a licensed house based on a movie that almost nobody has seen yet, as it doesn’t open until Sept. 22. Maybe it’ll resonate better if you’re familiar with the movie? Either way, if they’re going to keep turning David Gordon Green movies into haunted houses, they should do All the Real Girls sooner rather than later.
7. Stranger Things 4
There are probably two things you’d absolutely expect from a haunted house based on Stranger Things’ fourth season, and yes, this one has ‘em both. Eddie Munson and a LARPing Dustin help save the day by ripping through some Metallica in the house’s major set piece, and Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” plays quietly during a pivotal scene and then more prominently at the end of the house. Stranger Things has been such a regular presence at Halloween Horror Nights that it’s not that shocking or exciting anymore, but Universal still does a great job capturing the look and feel of its latest season. And thankfully this house doesn’t keep going to Russia for no good reason every few minutes.
6. Dueling Dragons: Choose Thy Fate
Here’s a first: a Halloween Horror Nights house based on a former Universal attraction. Dueling Dragons was an opening day ride at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, with a backstory about an ice dragon and a fire dragon locked in a constant struggle for dominance. Merlin was involved, somehow. The ride featured two coasters that ran simultaneously, seemingly racing each other; when the land around it was rebuilt as The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the ride was renamed to Dragon Challenge, and then removed entirely in 2017. The house adapts the ride’s story but with warring warlocks instead of dragons; you’ll encounter both of them and their various elemental minions throughout, and at the end you’ll choose which side wins. Hint: one ending is slightly longer than the other, and it was NOT the one I picked. I give this one extra points for the inspired reuse of a bygone attraction and some vibrant fire- and ice-based design work.
5. Universal Monsters: Unmasked
The annual Universal Monsters house is almost always one of the year’s best, and that holds true once more in 2023. This year’s story features the Phantom, the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll, and Quasimodo chasing guests throughout the Catacombs of Paris. It’s not much of a story, but it results in some of the finest set design of the year, along with perhaps its most striking visual: Quasimodo lunging down towards us from 15 feet above. The lack of a cohesive story dings this one a bit compared to the last few Universal Monsters houses, but it might be the most gorgeous house this year.
4. Chucky: Ultimate Kill Count
I will always be won over by a house that’s also hilarious. The line between comedy and horror is thin and porous, and this is one of two houses this year that prove it. It also has a slyly meta angle: Universal built a haunted house based on the Chucky TV show, filled with props and actors, and the real Chucky showed up to preserve his murderous reputation by offing everybody who enters. Like Chucky himself, Ultimate Kill Count is a gleefully sadistic house that succeeds on laughs more than story or design.
3. The Darkest Deal
I’m naturally predisposed to love a haunted house based on the legend of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads, but it wouldn’t rank this high if Universal didn’t do a genuinely great job with it. The Darkest Deal turns the Johnson myth into the story of a blues musician named Pinestraw Spruce, who sells his soul to a being known as The Collector (one guess as to his real identity) in return for musical glory. This house has an undeniable sense of time and place, with Spruce playing 1920s juke joints and house parties before having his soul claimed after playing a single chord at his first major show in a large theater. It tells a clear story based on a powerful modern myth, with fantastic set design, costuming, and music. It’s one of this year’s best.
2. Yeti: Campground Kills
Surprisingly, Chucky: Ultimate Kill Count isn’t this year’s funniest haunted house. No, that award goes to the house about a family of yetis tearing their way through a 1950s campground. It feels a bit like a classic ‘50s / ‘60s sitcom come to life, with the kind of archetypal characters you’d see in a Leave It to Beaver or Beverly Hillbillies getting justifiably ripped limb from limb by Bigfoot’s wintry cousin. Like last year’s excellent Bugs: Eaten Alive house, Campground Kills uses the faux-naivete and TV whitewash of the post-war years to heighten both its humor and its grisliness, while also making you sympathetic for its perceived monsters. In other words, it’s funny, gross, and has the barest outline of a message, which makes it a really great Halloween Horror Nights house.
1. Bloodmoon: Dark Offerings
Universal touted Bloodmoon as this year’s answer to Dead Man’s Pier: Winter’s Wake, the gorgeous, lyrical house that was pretty much the consensus highlight of last year’s Halloween Horror Nights. Bloodmoon can’t quite match the beauty and emotion of that house, but it also doesn’t really try; imagine a house that’s as elaborately designed as Dead Man’s Pier, and that similarly looks like an old New England town, but that’s focused on dread and foreboding instead of melancholy. Bloodmoon is a trip through an 18th century town that’s gradually being taken over by a murderous cult bent on sacrificing non-believers beneath the blood moon. With their hoods and capes the cult members cut an inherently creepy figure, and the house tracks their rise by gradually increasing the number of cultists as you go. It all builds up to a dramatic climax, with the leader of the cult looking down from a clock tower that seems to stretch three stories high as his followers slowly surround you. It doesn’t have the familiarity of the licensed houses, or the Halloween Horror Nights lore of Dr. Oddfellow, but Bloodmoon is the artistic high point of this year’s event, and Universal’s best haunted house of the year.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.